Constructed in 1928, Knoxville’s 17-floor, 205′ tall Andrew Johnson Hotel reigned as the city’s tallest building until 1979. The Andrew Johnson Building opened in 1930 as an upscale hotel in downtown Knoxville. The hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and today it is utilized as an office building. Named in honor of U. S. president Andrew Johnson, the landmark, located at 912 South Gay Street, was among Knoxville’s premier hotels for a number of years, serving as a popular lodging destination for tourists visiting the Great Smoky Mountains just south of the city.
It had marble floors and ornate balustrades that spoke of an earlier, swankier era, although it was still considered Knoxville’s finest hotel. Its 350 rooms all had private bathrooms. The AJ catered to Smokies tourists in those days, before there were many hotel rooms closer to the mountains, but in 1952, many Knoxvillians who could afford it came downtown to have a steak in elegant surroundings, accompanied by an organist playing popular songs and stylish classics.
Though its ballroom was sometimes a place to hear big horn-based jazz bands, whether the proprietors liked it or not the hotel had also developed a genuine country-music heritage. In 1935, the AJ’s top floor had been home to Lowell Blanchard’s WNOX studios. One of Blanchard’s most promising young stars who played up there was a redheaded Knoxvillian named Roy Acuff. By the time he made it to the Opry, Acuff was the idol of a thousand poor white kids in Alabama, including Hank Williams, who would imitate, and improve on, Acuff’s high-lonesome croon. (Acuff knew Williams, but, disgusted by his drug abuse, was said not to be a great admirer.)
The Andrew Johnson also had some connections to the fates of celebrated people. Amelia Earhart had stayed there in 1936, the year before her disappearance; while in the hotel, she told a newspaper reporter that she didn’t really expect to see old age. In 1943, the great Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff stayed there after performing at the University of Tennessee’s Alumni Hall. Meant to be just one stop in his American tour, it turned out to be the final performance of his long career. In pain from undiagnosed cancer, he canceled the rest of his tour and died about three months later.
One of the hotel’s most distinguished guests was country music legend Hank Williams, but, in actuality, Williams spent just a few hours of his last night there. The year was 1952. Charles Carr, a 17-year-old college boy from Alabama, had been hired to drive an ailing Hank Williams, 29, to concerts in Charleston, West Virginia, and Canton, Ohio. Having departed from Montgomery in Williams’ baby blue Cadillac on December 30, the pair spent the first night of their trek in Birmingham. The following day, they left for Charleston, but began encountering wintry weather conditions by the time they reached Chattanooga. Upon arriving in Knoxville, the two decided to catch a plane to Charleston, but bad weather forced the flight to return. With the New Year’s Eve show in Charleston now out of the question, they secured a room at Knoxville’s Andrew Johnson Hotel, and hoped to make it to Canton by the following evening. Carr indicated that Williams was ill and very weak, and would hardly eat. A physician was called in, and the singer was given two injections. Sometime over in the evening, they received a telephone call from the promoter of the Canton concert who reminded them of a clause in the contract that would penalize Williams if he didn’t make the show. So, Carr and Williams left Knoxville before midnight, and it was somewhere between Bristol, Virginia, and Oak Hill, West Virginia, just hours later, that Hank Williams died of heart failure in the back seat.